Sunday, January 10, 2010

Staying Organized and Happy

I like to think of myself as a pretty organized person. I am definitely a details person - dates, times, accurate details. I feel very happy when I know that everything has its place so I can go back to it easily in a moment's notice. I've worked very hard at home to keep things organized and to help my husband, who is not a details, everything in its place person, follow some kind of order to keep our house and life organized. Things work out well when there is only one other person to keep organized.

While my need for order and details sometimes (ok, most of the time) drives my husband nuts, I am absoutely thankful for those needs in the classroom. Not only do I have to worry about myself staying organized, I have to teach 25 students how to do it and help them maintain it as well. With the start of the new year, my kids and I spend some time this past week cleaning and organizing our classroom. Here are some tips and things that I do in my classroom to help everyone stay organized. I know all these tips may not be the ideal solution for you, but I didn't think I could do some of them either when I read about them. Now I couldn't picture myself going back to the old ways.
  • Getting Rid of Your Teacher Desk
    ~ This is probably the greatest thing that I have ever done in my classroom. When I moved into my classroom, I was in love with how much space I was given to work. I didn't have the traditional desk. Being a fairly new school, we had this like work table/counter top kind of desk. I quickly learned 3 things about my desk. Number 1 - All it did was collect piles and piles of stuff - papers, books, who knows what else. Number 2 - I never had time to even sit at it during the day. Number 3 - When I actually sat down at my desk, it was usually to help someone with something.

    After realizing my desk was not serving the purpose it was made for, I tried many different things to balance "my space" with "their space". Finally, over this past summer, I thought about what I really do all day long when I do sit down - work with small groups and hold individual conferences. Then it hit me! What I really needed was a table that could allow other people to sit with me instead of a desk that only allowed one person to sit. So, out with the enormous, oblong desk and in with the kidney table!

    My "desk" that I do all my work at is a kidney table. This one thing has helped me TREMENDOUSLY. No more piles of stuff because I can't - where would I have room for my kids to work with me? When I have something that would just go in a pile, it gets dealt with right there and it goes straight to the garbage or to a drawer (more about that in a second) for later. I have lots of room now to work with students. Before, they were trying to crowd around my desk, knocking off mounds of junk on my desk. Now, when they are working with me, they sit on one of the colorful stools I have at the table. I do have a student desk in the very corner of my room that holds my laptop and room phone and I can store a few important things. I'm telling you - don't knock it until you try it. When I got rid of my desk, I was able to open up a HUGE area for large group instruction...big enough that I am looking for a small couch or loveseat to put there. Yeah, our teacher desks are that big. It was an adjustment at first, but it was the best thing for me. It does confuse other teachers when they come in and try to leave you a note on your desk, but everyone gets used to it.

  • Prioritizing What Goes in the Desk
    ~ If you didn't know, I teach third grade. Third graders are hoarders. They keep everything from scraps of paper to bottle caps to rocks to I don't even want to know.

    In our room, we have tables. My students do not have a bottomless abyss to store stuff anymore. Each of my students has a 3x12 inch basket that sits on the top of their table. This little basket REALLY cuts down on the amount of garbage they can have. At first, the rule was whatever could fit in their basket could stay at their tables. Well, you always have that one student who can find a way to cram everything but their backpack in the basket. A couple months ago, we created a list of things that were only allowed in the basket. I love this because there is nothing for them to play with at the tables. They can't hide anything like toys because I can see clearly into each basket. If I ever had to go back to regular desks, I think I would still do this. I just can't believe the amount of junk 8 year olds can accumulate. No more lost pencils, cut up crayons, or eraser collections!

    As far as their books and other larger things, they stay on a seperate bookshelf. I don't use many of the textbooks, but the two that we do use (Science and Social Studies) stay on a bookshelf in the room. I have numbered the spines so the kids can easily tell which one belongs to them. They are really good about putting them back in order. All of their other workbooks, notebooks, and binders and housed in a small magazine rack on a bookshelf. When they need something, they simply get up to get it. Once again, no mess because they are only allowed to keep certain things in them and I can easily monitor the baskets.

  • Plastic Drawers Were the Best $7.50 I Ever Spent
    ~ To help keep my things and the kids' things organized, I bought a ton of those Sterallite plastic 3 drawer containers. Here are some things that I have organized in my drawers.

    * Drawers labled Monday-Friday for my daily lesson materials
    * A couple sets labeled for individual math games and spelling activities
    * Labeled sets for papers and forms that we use frequently (reading logs, lunch count, spelling tests, speical colored paper, peer review forms, etc)
    * A set for my own use for organizing teacher stuff
    * Smaller sets that hold paper clips, rubber bands, pens, and other materials that are on the morning check in table.

    I realize that these may seem pricey, but even getting one or two sets and prioritizing their use will really help you keep important things safe and organized.

I will be taking some pictures of these ideas and some other little things I do to help to visualize how these ideas may work in your classroom. Make it your goal to be better organized for 2010!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

One Stop Shop for Writing

This weekend, I went to Bass Pro Shop for the first time. Oh my gosh, I couldn't believe the size and everything that was there. Anything you could want for the outdoors was at your fingertips!

I wanted to share a very useful website that I was introduced to recently. is the Bass Pro Shop for Writing. This website has just about anything you want for your Writer's Workshop. Some of my favorite things are the lesson ideas for using different picture books, the plethora of prompt ideas, and the ideas for using writing across the curriculum.

If you are stuck in a rut and need some fresh ideas to try in your Writer's Workshop, I recommend that you hop on over to
P.S. - On a writing side note, I will be getting the Lucy Calkins "Units of Study" very soon and I can't wait to try some of her ideas and share some of the highlights on here. I'm also getting some Science and Social Studies books, too!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Out In Left Field

I haven't been around in education a long time, but I've been around enough teachers to see how very different we are all are in our philosophies of how children shoulCheck Spellingd be taught. I've heard teachers talk about the education "pendulum" that swings back and forth bringing with each swing a past idea that has been reinvigorated somehow. We have all been exposed to so many different approaches and for the "right out of college" teachers like myself, I was taught what is the current trend in education as were teachers 10, 20, or 30 years ago.

I have been pleased to see that so many other educators from around the country have been checking out the blog. I don't know about your state, but in the state of Indiana where I am from, it is the year to adopt a new math textbook. This is my 3rd textbook adoption and I am a little excited about it. For the past two years, everything in my district has been literacy, literacy, literacy. It's a breath of fresh air to talk about something new! I'm also a little excited because I love teaching math.

Being one of those "newbies" I was trained and taught the current trend in math education - inquiry math or as you may know it "reform math". If you are not familiar with these approaches, the philosophy is that children need to work with the big picture of math and form concepts for themselves in different contexts rather than being taught "the way" and numerous algorithms (like many of us were taught). People who believe in inquiry teach from situations rather than a textbook, look for thinking patterns in addition to the right answer, and are more of a facilitator during math rather than a "stand up at the board and talk" teacher. Doesn't seem like it can be that bad, right?

I feel very comfortable teaching in an inquiry math setting. I find that the inquiry approach meshes with my philosophy of children being actively engaged in their learning and being part of a learning community. However, that is not the attitude by all. Many people do not understand inquiry math and the benefit it can have for children. I've heard teachers talk about how it does not meet math standards, how struggling children fail with the approach, and how children see it as playtime and social time. I will be the first to admit that teaching in an inquiry classroom takes a shift of mind for all - teachers and students - and cannot be successful without the proper planning and implementation.

So what does this all mean when it comes down to math textbook adoption? Of course, schools want to stay current with best practices, but to what extent is it supported? What if your school made you teach in an inquiry math setting if you didn't support it or believe in it? To be honest, I find myself in the middle. I definitely see the extreme value of teaching inquiry math. I also value my students knowing "how" to do math. Yes, it is powerful to "discover" multiplication, but at some point, you need to know those facts to become more fluent in problem solving. So what am I going to do when I get my box of new textbooks materials next year? Nothing. I am going to continue to do what I do - teach my students what they are ready for. I don't feel to affected by this whole adoption. We already use many different resources in our classroom - Purdue University Calumet materials, Project M3, Math Out of the Box, Contexts in Mathematics, Mini-economy, Singapore Math, and yes, even materials associated with the textbook. Wouldn't anyone do that?

Anyways, I wanted to share a link with you. Dr. Katherine Beals is a professor and past teacher from Pennsylvania. She has a blog called "Out in Left Field" where she questions the use of approaches like inquiry/reform math, cooperative learning, and other approaches that are on the other side of the spectrum from direct teaching. Dr. Beals main argument is that these practices do not support the needs of students with autism or other issues and why math abilities of students from some European and Asian countries surpass those of American students. I was a little hesitant to read at first only because I know what my beliefs are, but I was surprised at how interested I was in her argument. I recommend you check it out. The link is below.

Out In Left Field -
What do you think?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Glue It and Do It!

I spend oodles of time on the Internet looking for ideas for all subjects. I will tell you, it is MUCH easier to find resources for literacy than it is for math. I don't know what it is - maybe since literacy encompasses more, there are just more resources out there or if teachers favor literacy more...I don't know. I get very excited when I find something for math that is equally cool as any Reader's Workshop or 6 Traits idea.

Anyways, I have taken a liking to using notebooks for each subjects to help my kids organize their thinking and showcase their learning. Of course they had their Reader's Notebook, Writer's Notebook, and notebooks for Science and Social Studies, but I was perplexed as to how to do it for Math. What does a Math Notebook look like? What does it contain? What it is used for? I went in search of an answer. Google helped me stumble across a fellow 4th grade teacher from sunny and warm Florida. Her name is Victoria Jasztal and she is FABULOUS! I have borrowed so many ideas from her website Check it out to learn more about this idea and others!

In our class, our Math Notebooks contain our "Glue It and Do It" activities. The "Glue Its" are questions that require the application of math skills and can have multiple ways to solve the problem. I have found my questions from different resources like Laura Candler Math Puzzlers, old ISTEP questions, Singapore Math Challenge Books, and other math books. The notebooks also help us practice good social norms and questioning the results of others. At the beginning of each class, the paper passers pass out the small strip of paper that has the question. The students were trained on how to glue them in, write the date, and get started. When students finish, they may discuss their solution with a neighbor. During this time, I am walking around and looking to see how students are solving the problems. I may help some students get a start on their problems, help others check for accuracy or mistakes, but more importantly, I am looking for some interesting discussions or teaching points. There is a lot of easy differentiation going on because students are using what they know and feel comfortable with. I have students have experience with multiplication and division and use that and I have others that draw pictures. When thinking about possible students to have share, don't be afraid to choose someone that attempts the problem incorrectly. Sometimes, those discussions are great teaching points. If I know someone is sensitive, I try not to choose them for this unless I've talked with them and then I usually try to give it a positive spin of asking the audience for help.

When we are ready to discuss as a class, I think about what I saw and call up students to bring their notebooks up to the document presenter (if you don't know what this is, it is an overhead that is really a video camera that projects what you put under it - when it's not my day to have it, I feel like I am teaching with one arm.). During this time, the student that is presenting is referred to as Miss ________ or Mr. ________. It was something I did one day to get a laugh, but they kept it up and started referring to anyone up at the DP as Miss or Mr. They get such a kick out of the title and it gets some of my more timid students up to share, too. Hey, if that's what gets them excited, then so be it!

The "teacher" will start out by discussing what they did to solve the problem. During the discussion, other students are allowed to ask questions to clarify their understanding or share their disagreement if they might see a mistake. This is all part of your norms. If you don't teach your students how to point out mistakes or misunderstanding without shouting "That's wrong." or "You didn't do it right.", then your discussion is going to be very negative and no one is going to want to come back up. Once a question is asked by the other students, the "teacher" has the chance to re-explain their thinking or choose to sit back down to make revisions. I usually take a back seat for all of this. The "teacher" chooses people to speak and chooses to sit down. I've had to step in a few times, but usually things are resolved with just a few comments from the audience. Some discussions can become heated, but if they are that hot and bothered and willing to keep defending ideas, then they must be engaged in the learning.

We have about 2-3 people share each time. We take a look at the different methods - similarities, differences, complexity, whatever we notice. Sometimes, I may give an extension activity for later by changing the situation of the problem or asking them to dig deeper on something. Sometimes, the kids even think of something more they want to work on and throw that idea out to the class. Once again, if they thinking that hard about it, they must be pretty engaged. Yea for that!

Now while all this is doing together, not all the students get the problems right. I don't take a grade on these nor do I even collect all 25 notebooks each day and look at them. What I do is I assign each student a day and collect 5-6 notebooks for that day. I review then quickly, by looking at how they approached the problem. If they are accurate and have the problem correct, I put a smiley face at the bottom to let the students know I have reviewed it. If they are not correct, I use a sticky note to jot down a note about correcting it or with a question for them to think about. When the students get their notebooks back, they know to review it to look for comments or corrections. They can do the corrections when they finish other problems early. I collect any corrections each day. You may be thinking, "if you do it together, then wouldn't they just copy down the right answer?" Well, at least in 3rd grade, they don't!. If they had it wrong, they turn it in wrong - which is fine, they go back to correct it or work with me in a small group. Even if they do copy, you can tell easily because the page is just a mess with erasing and they have copied to the T - line for line exact location on the page. If I do see that, I'll call the students up and have them explain it to me. If they have copied, they can't do that easily. No problem - we meet together and work through it.

There are many uses for the notebooks besides just for learning math each day. The notebooks are a great way to document student learning. The students have a record of their thinking and I can use it as evidence in a parent conference to show if a student is doing well or struggling. I keep a Math Notebook that is exactly the same, but instead of me solving the problems, I may write down notes about the problem, things I saw, or if I need to change the problem for next year.

Here are some pictures from some of my students' notebooks. Note - not all of them are this neat. I do talk about neatness and how it can affect accuracy with some of them. You probably know what I'm talking about though... :-)

This is what our notebooks look like. They are just the small composition notebooks. The "T" means this student hands her notebook in on Tuesdays.
Students are encouraged to draw pictures to demonstrate understanding.

We talk about how tables and charts can help us organize thinking.

An example of how I use the sticky notes for corrections. She made the correction and I need to go back and check.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Some Food for Thought for the Holiday Week

Sorry about the late posting! I had a couple parties and computer problems this weekend. I think we're back to normal.

This past week was a tough one...very stressful with schedule changes, antsy kids, other school happenings, pooping dog, and so on. It was one of those weeks where I look at my husband (the band teacher) and wish I would have as much talent to become a band teacher - no papers to grade, no ISTEP to worry about, and excellent student motivation (they WANT to do music). Sometimes I'm jealous of him because I feel he truly gets to teach each day without worrying about all the things that make regular classroom teachers (including myself) go bonkers.

That being said, I'm looking forward to the Thanksgiving vacation. I like 4+ day vacations because they give you a chance to recharge your "batteries". The rest and relaxation is nice, but I also like to pick up something school related that I know will help me motivate myself...something to show me that as bad as I may think things are, that I really do love what I do and to get me pumped to walk in on Monday with something new to try.

A few years ago, my husband's school corporation did a book study with the book "What Great Teachers Do Differently - 14 Things That Matter Most" by Todd Whitaker. He finished the book and told me to read it because it was "my kind of book"...whatever that means. I like to reread this book when I'm feeling stressed. It motivates me to do better. If you Google the book, you'll find mixed reviews. It's an easy read with a good message. Some people (like myself) see this book as a "pick me up" and inspiration to be better each day. Some people see the book as a pair of rose-colored glasses and an impossible dream in the days of standarized testing and RTI. However you see it, Mr. Whitaker's ideas are simple - it's not the expensive programs or the cool, fun lesson plan from the Internet. The key to student success is the high expectations a teacher sets for him or herself. The book gives 14 ideas to inspire you to do better by setting higher expectations for yourself in addition to your students.

I won't spoil the book for you in case you want to pick it up for a read on your drive this weekend, but I will leave you with some of my favorite pieces of advice from Mr. Whitaker.

~When asked by a school to help improve reading scores - "Are you so interested in improving your students' reading abilities that you are willing to change what you do in your classroom - or do you want to raise their test scores so that you don't have to change what you do in your classroom?" (page 112)

~"Each of us can think of many innovations that were touted as the answer in education. Too often, we expect them to solve all of our woes. When they do not, we see them as the problem. However, we must keep in mind that programs are never the solution, and they are never the problem. (page 10)

~ "Great teachers have high expectations for their students, but even higher expectations for themselves." (There is much more with this quote...I suggest you finish reading on page 34.)

~"Just do what is right, no matter what others do around you. That is what great teachers do. They do what is right no matter what else is going on." (page 120)

Valuable advice or an impossible dream? Read it for yourself and decide! Happy Turkey Day!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Homework to Meet Their Needs

Homework...or as the kids say, "hoooooooooooomework".

Each year I've tried to find the best way to give my students homework. I've tried many things - picking something at the end of the day that I think they need more work on, trying to adhere to a homework schedule (Mondays are always Spelling, Tuesday are always Math, and so on.), and just giving homework in one subject (for me it was math). I just wasn't happy with what I was doing.

Now with the push to try to meet individual needs, I felt even more pressure to find a better way to give my kids the additional practice. I sat down and thought about the things I really wanted my students to become better at - generating ideas and practicing writing, responding and thinking about reading, using vocabulary words, and reviewing math skills - all at their individual levels. I also thought about the value of student choice and all the paperwork that come with collecting and grading.

This year, I have started using a weekly homework packet. In each packet, my students have the choice to have a Writer's Workshop or Reader's Workshop at home, a Vocabulary Review, a Math review, and a bonus or extension activity. My hopes with this packet was to give my students a variety of activities while allowing them to work at their own levels. I give out their homework on Monday and it is due on Friday along with their spelling list for their spelling group. Here is a little more information on each section...

1. Writer's Workshop/Reader's Workshop at Home
  • My students have the choice to either compose a piece of writing at home or write a reading response letter using skills that we have talked about as a class or in their individual reading/writing conferences. At the beginning of the year, the assignments were seperate in the packet because I wanted them to practice both, but now they have the choice. I sometimes give guidelines of things I'm looking for - if we're working on voice, the writing goal might be focused on using voice or writing in their letters about how their author used voice in the book they are reading. Other times, they have free choice. What I like most about this is that the students are reading books at their levels, responding at their level, and working on the skills that we've been working on individually during conferences. I also like to discuss their homework in their conferences to point out new things to work on or to talk about effort. An extra bonus to this is that the parents actually get to see their kids write and can see what they need to work on. I think this is eye-opening to many of them.

2. Vocabulary Review

  • On weeks that we have a vocabulary test, they are to use their words in sentences. On the off weeks, they are reviewing past vocabulary words or other vocabulary acitivities. I see this as an extension or writing. My students that are working on using quotation mark correctly are trying to write sentences with dialogue where my students that may be struggling are focused on starting setences with capital letters and correct punctuation. Of course, everyone has to use the word correctly, but the connections and sentences vary so much!

3. Math Review

  • I'm in the process of changing this, but I had originally started off giving the students 4 questions of different difficulties from which they would choose 2 to complete and explain their thinking. I've actually adopted this as part of our math class, so I've been having the students review math skills that they may be having problems with in class. I am going to go back to the "choice activity" once I find another resource that can give me the variety in problems I'm looking for.

4. Bonus/Extension

  • This is probably the favorite of my kids. The bonus is optional each week. I've used brain teasers, critical thinking activities, little projects that go along with Science, Social Studies, or special events, and some computer research. Pretty much, it's some of the little stuff we may not have time for in school, but still fun to try.

I have received a lot of positive feedback from my parents about the homework packet. The kids were a little unsure of it when we first started, but I think just about everyone is on board. Parents have told me they like having everything on Monday so they can plan to do homework throughout the week. Everyone has busy schedules and emergencies - if they can plan ahead, great! As a teacher, it is SO much easier to manage than trying to assign something EACH DAY, take time to write it down EACH DAY, and collect it EACH DAY. I do everything once a week. I also enjoy checking this homework SO much more than having the answer key next to me and going back and forth with an assignment. It give me a chance to comment and talk with my kids.

As with anything, this works well for me, my kids, and my parents. You may have different needs and situations, but if you often wonder about homework and how you can make it better for you and your students, maybe give one of these ideas a try! I have some documents below for you to download if you want to see what is part of our packet.

Homework Guidelines - I sent this home to parents to explain how things work.

Reading and Writing Choice - Example of the reading or writing choice

Reading Response - Example of just a reading response assignment

Writing Assignment - Example of just a writing assignment

Explain Your Thinking - This was part of the math assignment. I would copy the questions on the back.

Friday, November 6, 2009


Thank you for checking out my blog! Let me give you a little more information about what this is all about.

I needed a project for my yearly professional growth plan. In the past, I've always done what my team has done, but this year I wanted something different. Also, projects have always been geared towards the students (which I'm not saying is a bad thing), but I still was in search of something to spark my interest. I listen to so many teachers (new and experienced) in my building talk about how they need a new idea or how they want to become better at something so the lightbulb flipped on in my head. Why not start a place where teachers can come for ideas and share ideas with others and would always be accessible at the touch of a button? It took me a while to think of a appropriate, catchy name, but then I heard one of my students - yes, one of my third graders - talking about tweeting on Twitter. The name kinda stuck in my head and here we are!

My vision for this blog is for teachers to be able to find a new idea to try with their students and for me to find ideas from other teachers. I encourage you to try things and share your ups and downs. You many even give me an idea of how I can improve on something I do!
I'm looking up update my blog each Saturday or Sunday so you'll be able to learn on the weekends in your PJs or in the comfort of your classroom. Here are somethings I plan on blogging on...

  • Differentiating homework without making 25 different assignments
  • Reading and Writing Conferences
  • Math games to reinforce concepts
  • Interesting websites and web finds
  • Working in a Reader's and Writer's Workshop
  • Lessons I've had success with in my room
  • Guest bloggers that have had a success they want to share.
  • Using Interactive Notebooks to help students organize learning in Science and Social Studies
  • Useful books and resources
  • Using technology to enhance learning
  • Things that my students like about our room and want to share with you - yes, my students LOVE to talk about the things they do...just ask my kids from last year that ran one of my teacher trainings. Such hams! :-)

Check back often! If there is something in particular you want to know more about, just let me know and I'll write a post about it! Hope to see you around!